I was completely intrigued when awhile back, I received an email/invitation from the Press Office of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inviting me to a luncheon at the famed institution on Monday, January 26th. The occasion, an apparently long overdue “Tribute to Fashion Designer Arthur McGee”, hailed as the “Dean of African American Designers”. According to his website, http://www.arthurmcgee.com/, the Detroit born 78 year old is the “grandfather of fashion designers of color, pioneering the way for them to enter the Fashion Industry on Seventh Avenue, and to start their own companies through his example”.
While I consider myself a seasoned ‘pro’ with years of experience within the fashion magazine world, I must admit that I was really not very familiar with the name and had never met the man (as far as I can remember). I was further intrigued after reading his impressive biography, chronicling his many contributions to the world of fashion. Among them: he was head designer for two all American classic labels, Bobbie Brooks in the 50’s and Collegiate Boston; he counted major stars and celebrities as loyal customers (the list includes the late Lena Horne and Sybil Burton, Mrs. Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and Cicely Tyson – who was present and addressed the seated guests before lunch); he was an inspiring mentor to countless fashion students (including those at FIT) and famed designers, including Elena Braith (Aziza Braithwaite Bey) who was credited by Harold Koda as being the “engine that drives this event”, and the late Willie Smith. The latter was of particular interest to me as I was fortunate enough to have been his editor when I was at Harper’s Bazaar.
Nancy Chilton, head of Press for The Museum’s Costume Institute, told me this would be a sit down lunch for approximately 100 people and she promised it would be “lovely and inspiring”. Well, it was certainly that and more. And what an upbeat, lovely way to start the week! The 4th floor Board of Director’s wing, served as a rather intimate venue, and you could literally feel the love and warmth radiating through the rooms. Before sitting down to lunch, guests enjoyed cocktails and could mill around the adjacent ‘terrace’ room which boasted dramatic skylight windows overlooking Central Park (I wouldn’t mind moving in there). It was there that dress forms, clad in a well edited retrospective of Arthur’s work though the years, enabled attendees to get a quick glimpse at his design aesthetic (“classic with a twist” is how he put it). Indeed, the clothing, which ran the gamut from play clothes to evening and everything in between, seemed ageless, timeless and could easily have been the work of a creator in 2009. Of particular note was a gray pinstriped jacket whose top was completely encrusted with pearls and beads, a chic as all get out tiny checked funnel necked, belted raincoat with gathered back, and the African mud cloth shirt dress and abbreviated romper which Cicely Tyson admitted she owned and loved.
Before the lovely lunch of composed salad and warm chicken breast, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chief Audience Development Office, Donna Williams, addressed the assembled crowd which included Andre Leon Talley, Hamish Bowles, Susan Taylor (editorial director of Essence), Amy Fine Collins, designers Stephen Burrows and B. Michael, EBay’s Constance White, Lynn Yaeger, and Audrey Smaltz. But while many faces were familiar to me, this was not exactly a typical fashion crowd with all the ‘usual suspects’ and so there were many more that were not. I really enjoyed chatting with guests and table mates who I had not crossed paths with before.
Ms. Williams was followed by Thomas P. Campbell, Director, (I guess one can describe this as a ‘coming out’ party of sorts, since he has just taken the place of the recently retired, legendary Philippe de Montebello). Next up was Harold Koda (Curator in Charge, the Costume Institute), who took the conversation to another, somewhat political level, alluding to the often neglected exclusionary aspect of the fashion industry with his observation, “there is a changing definition of what constitutes American fashion”. Let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s a good thing”. Then came Richard Baker, Chairman, Lord & Taylor who said that the iconic chain, established in 1826, (the oldest in history), has long built its reputation on “signature American Style”, and was a major force behind Bobbie Brooks, the label which was headed up by Mr. Mc Gee. He spoke of Arthur’s “pioneering spirit and talent which has inspired many in the fashion industry and lauded him for showing how to “expand boundaries and move fashion forward.”
Last but not least, Cicely Tyson, looking great in a tailored pantsuit, personalized the whole event. She spoke of how touched she was to hear the Met would recognize Arthur with this tribute and lovingly spoke of Arthur’s designs as being “more than just clothes…they were a part of me”. “His clothes seemed so free…when I wore them I always felt like I was floating”. On a personal level she added “I’ve always loved him because he is so honest and so kind”.
After lunch and before coffee and dessert, there was a video screening filmed interview with Arthur Mc Gee which had the guests laughing out loud with his remembrances and recollections. Highlights included his admission that his mother always served as his inspiration (he began making hats for her as a young boy); that he was once told “there were no jobs for black designers” (after which he opened his store in the Village and immediately sold 8 – 8 things to Sybil Burton); upon going to fabric stores in search of fabrics…he was often asked, “Where’s the designer?” (He told them proudly, “I’m the designer”); when asked by his bosses to “make something new”, he obliged literally by creating a “sweater with three sleeves”. Most importantly, his roots have never been far behind because it is the way he “took African fabrics and turned them into classic things” that is at the heart of his aesthetic. As for his design “inspirations”…he read something Coco Chanel once said about the meaning of style, and mentioned the hallowed names, Claire McCardell and Adrian.
I couldn’t help but savor the moment, reflecting on how symbolic, fitting and timely was this tribute to an African American designer (who spoke so candidly about overcoming prejudice and discrimination to become a force to recon with), following on the heels of our recent and historic inaugural of Barack Obama. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be if we were truly ‘color blind’, and not feel at all obliged to describe a designer as African American or to take note of his color or ethnicity. And with the formal installation of our first African American President, I think we all believe this is a more attainable, realistic goal than ever before. Anything is possible!